We flew into Cartagena late at night after a short hop from Lima. The wall of heat and humidity that greeted us as we got off the plane at 11pm was the complete ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment. The air smelled different.
Our first real sight of this extraordinary colonial city on the southern fringe of the Caribbean would have to wait until the next day, but as we drove through the streets to our hotel the thumping sounds playing from cars, houses and bars were distinctly Caribbean. This is not just due to the city’s location, but its history as a cultural and ethnic melting pot. This is where Europe, indigenous Latin America and Africa meet and have mixed for 500 years.
The sun was up early the following day, bringing with it serious heat, even at 8.30 in the morning. Walking out of our hotel in the Getsemani district we were immediately confronted by the fortress walls build by the Spanish to protect the city from pirate attack. Across a stretch of open water rose the giant fortress of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas. It was like walking into a living museum – a well fortified museum.
Cartagena’s history is the stuff of legend. Founded in 1533 it quickly became the major port for shipping silver, gold and other valuable goods back to Europe. It grew to be the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean. Despite repeated sieges and attacks by English pirates (or privateers, as they were known), the city flourished and its legacy is as one of the best preserved colonial towns anywhere on the planet.
When the Spanish arrived the region was already heavily populated. Resistance was quickly crushed and the Spanish were able to get on with the serious business of collecting and shipping treasure back to Spain – and building a city to match the wealth that was passing through it.
This success was both Cartagena’s making and its curse. The vast riches stored in the city attracted pirates, and the city was repeatedly attacked. In the sixteenth century there were regular sieges by pirate forces, the most famous of which was Sir Francis Drake in 1586 – the year after Spain had declared war on England.
Drake spared the city widespread destruction in exchange for a vast ransom, but this, amongst other acts, convinced Philip II of Spain to attempt his unsuccessful invasion of England – the Spanish Armada – in 1588. Regardless of these setbacks, Cartagena continued to grow in both size and importance. Much of that city remains today as beautiful buildings, leafy plazas, monumental churches and fascinating museums.
One of the more destructive sieges of Cartagena came in 1741. Led by a British pirate, Edward Vernon, it is commemorated by a statue of Cartagena’s one-legged, one-armed defender, Blas de Lezo, outside of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas – a fortress built largely to stop such raids. Strangely, it has plaques boasting of British success on its sides, but perhaps they’re ironic given it was a resounding British defeat*.
* For anyone wondering how Drake was an English pirate and Vernon was a British pirate, the Act of Union between England and Scotland took place in 1707 changing everyone’s status in England, Scotland and Wales. Tedious, but important.